Something new

[This essay is offered as a probe, in the vein of continuing conversation on the book Subjects of the KingdomI hope for some reflections and responses.]

Something new was coming.

In those days John the Baptist came on the scene, preaching in the desert of Judaea, “Repent, the Reign of heaven is near.”

. . .

But when he noticed the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers, who told you to flee from the coming Wrath?  Now, produce fruit that answers to your repentance, instead of presuming to say to yourselves, ‘We have a father in Abraham.’

. . .

The axe is lying all ready at the root of the trees; any tree that is not producing good fruit will be cut down. . . .”

The wording above is from an obscure yet fairly reputable 1922 translation by a single individual (James Moffatt, DD, DLitt).  Mental meanderings led me to compare the verbal description encapsulated in the word “lying” with other versions.  So I moved ahead almost a century to the NET Bible, which has “Even now the axe is laid.”  To my ear, the expression doesn’t sound as active and ready when the verb is “laid” instead of “lying.”  [The Greek is κεῖμαι | keimai, which is a present-tense, middle/passive voice verb that happens to be relatively uncommon in the NT—with only 24 uses overall, and half of those in the gospels.]  My understanding of the middle/passive voice is limited, but it allows for a range of understandings, so there is some latitude here.  The NRSV has “lying,” as does the New International Reader’s Version.  The NASB and ESV both have the more staid “laid.”  The rendering that jumps out the most is the almost-cobra-like HCSB one:

“Even now the ax is ready to strike the root of the trees!”

My eyes went to the verb this morning, but other grammatical aspects could be explored, such as the import of the post-positive conjunction δέ / de (often “and” or “but”) or the leading adverb ἤδη / édé (roughly “now”).  Any of these could reveal insight into what Matthew is saying about what John was saying.

Something was about to change when John (the submerger, not the apostle) was doing his thing in the wilderness.  Whatever a reader’s inclinations on any complicated theologies, one can’t read “The axe is lying all ready” or “the ax is ready to strike” without thinking that those who heard John say that would have started watching out for something, or at least looking over their shoulder.

So, what was changing?  The reign of God was about to have a new era.  Matthew called it ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν | the kingdom of heaven, or something like that.  Moffatt’s translation is “the Reign of heaven,” and that seems to be a richer, more apt expression.

In a fit of coincidence, I happened to have in my hands a copy of Viola and Sweet’s book The Jesus Manifesto yesterday.  (Previously, I’d only heard of this book, although I’ve read one other by the same authors.)  I zeroed in on chapter 7, “A Collision of Two Empires.”  I noticed this paragraph and hope readers of this post will, too:

A good definition of the kingdom of God is as follows:  the manifestation of God’s ruling presence.  “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you,” Jesus said.  In other words, Jesus was saying, “I’m standing here in your midst.  I am the kingdom incarnated.  Not only in what I do, but in who I am.” 

The Jesus Manifesto, 107

This type of presence was a new thing.  It made a difference, and makes a difference in 2016, too.

B. Casey, 10/13/16


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